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Monday, December 15, 2008

Raiders of the found art: Tut vs. Emperor

click to enlarge THE AFTER AFTER PARTY: King Tut goes for the gold in "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs." Photo © Sandro Vannini
  • THE AFTER AFTER PARTY: King Tut goes for the gold in "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs." Photo © Sandro Vannini

Egypt’s boy king takes on China’s first emperor in a contest to see who’ll rule Atlanta’s historical art scene. It may be a mismatch to compare the lavish touring Tutankhamun show, on view at the Atlanta Civic Center until May 25, with the High Museum’s smaller-scale but still impressive The First Emperor (through April 19). Nevertheless, King Tut and Qin Shihuangdi both established opulent tombs so they could live large in the afterlife. Both succeeded to the extent that they’re now rock stars of historical arts. With joint tickets available, the two exhibits will deservedly raise the city’s cultural profile, as long as you can see past the unfortunate term “Tutlanta.”

FULL TITLE OF SHOW

Tut: Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs

Emperor: The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army

LENGTH OF REIGN

Tut: 1333–1324 B.C., although the exhibit includes pieces from pharaohs spanning 2600-600 B.C.

Emperor: 221-210 B.C., but that just includes unified China; he ruled China’s Qin state starting in 247 B.C.

DISCOVERY OF TOMB

Tut: In 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter, who probably never let his colleagues hear the end of it.

Emperor: In 1974 by local farmers, who were probably pretty surprised to discover an underground chamber full of heavily armed terracotta soldiers.

# PIECES IN EXHIBIT

Tut: More than 130 artifacts, with 50 from Tut’s tomb and 70 from other pharaohs

Emperor: 100 works, including 15 terracotta figures, most which are life-size

BASIC FLOOR SCHEME

Tut: Introductory artifacts from the other pharaohs places Tut in historical context, while the progression to darker, dramatically lit rooms (“annex,” “treasury,” “burial chamber”) evokes Carter’s discovery of the tomb.

Emperor: A similar but smaller-scale build-up to the “tomb’s” interior, with the placement of the terracotta warriors and chariots offering a visual punch.

PRIDE OF PLACE

Tut: As you leave, you see a quartzite colossus of Tutankhamun, which proves mighty impressive despite a broken torso.

Emperor: As you enter, you see a kneeling terracotta archer crafted with considerable personality and detail.

FACTS FOR YOUR FRIENDS

Tut: Tut became Pharaoh when he was 9-10 years old and married his half-sister when he was 12, suggesting how much Egypt’s 18th dynasty was like “Dynasty,” the night-time soap opera.

Emperor: Hundreds of thousands of laborers spent more than 30 years building a tomb complex that features 600 pits and spans 23 square miles — that we know of.

click to enlarge ARMY FOR ONE: "Kneeling archer (detail), Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C)," part of Emperor Qin's terracotta army/Photo by John Williams and Saul Peckham
  • ARMY FOR ONE: "Kneeling archer (detail), Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C)," part of Emperor Qin's terracotta army/Photo by John Williams and Saul Peckham

NET EFFECT OF ARTIFACTS

Tut: In a word, bling. Especially in the tomb section, where the preponderance of precious metals and jewelry — including gold sandals and finger and toe protectors — suggests how much the Egyptians went for conspicuous consumption. You can’t help but wonder how much you could get for the pieces on the street.

Emperor: Practicality. While the terracotta figures would’ve served Qin in the afterlife, the presence of building materials, coins and standardized weights and measures emphasizes functionality. You suspect that Qin got a lot done in a day.

LEARNING TOOL

Tut: Neat-o CT scan imagery shows what mummies look like under their wrappers and offers clues to Tut’s death.

Emperor: Contemporary sculpture shows workers going through the arduous steps of creating a terracotta warrior and horse.

PET CARRIER

Tut: Limestone sarcophagus, probably for a cat, that resembles a cement dog house

Emperor: An animal coffin for precious pets, probably birds

HUMANIZING TOUCH

Tut: Stone toilet seat, because even a pharaoh can’t have the servants go to the bathroom for him.

Emperor: Bronze coins, reminding you that, no matter who was unifying the continent, someone had to pay for all this.

KID APPEAL

Tut: Girls will probably coo over the golden collars. Boys will probably “Ew!” over the details about the Egyptian royal’s weird elongated skulls.

Emperor: Boys will probably covet the lances, crossbows and other weapons. Girls will probably prefer the half-scale reproduction of the horse-drawn chariots. They look like ponies!

CAN I HAVE ONE?

Tut: Four gorgeous, miniature canopic coffinettes that contained Tut’s various internal organs and would be perfect for Barbie-as-Tomb Raider play.

Emperor: Limestone armor made of countless, exquisitely detailed pieces linked together, which would really impress them at Medieval Times.

FOOT FACTOR

Tut: The dignified statue of Queen Nofret features feet that seem disproportionately big, like she had “man feet.”

Emperor: Pressed circles and the detailed soles of the archer’s footwear convey the artist's perfectionism.

IMPLIED ATTITUDE TOWARD THE AFTERLIFE

Tut: “Who’s to say that I won’t need my gold finger and toe protectors even after I’m dead?”

Emperor: “It’s good to have several thousand soldiers and other servants, because they can have each other to talk to if they get bored.”

AUDIO/VISUAL AIDS

Tut: 90-second introductory film at entrance, plus the exhibit includes the 22-minute 3-D film Egypt 3D: Secrets of the Mummies, which is sort of like “CSI: Mummies!” with kitschy historical recreations.

Emperor: Three minute silent recap of Qin's historical importance on constant loop.

BIGGEST SIGN OF AMERICAN POP FAME

Tut: Steve Martin’s 1978 novelty song “King Tut”

Emperor: The 2008 film The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, although the vogue for mummies as movie monsters pretty much derives from Carter’s discovery, so Tut really “wins.”

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